The Scottish Borders, where I live, is full to bursting with creative people, not just writers, but visual artists working in a wide range of media. And in talking to some of them, I’ve discovered an interesting thing: the creative processes of those of us who work with words have a lot in common with those of artists who create images. So, as a change from blogging about myself and my writing, I shall occasionally invite an artist on here to answer questions (based on ones I’ve been asked myself) about how they work. I hope you’ll find this an interesting departure.
My first volunteer is Kim McGillivray, an illustrator and educator based in Edinburgh. I met Kim last year when he designed the wonderful cover for No Stranger to Death. Since 1993, he has been providing imagery for book covers and editorial features, created weekly satirical spots for newspapers plus illustrations for commercial graphics/advertising and the odd poster along the way. He also teaches part-time at Art College.
At what age did you realise you were creative, and what form did your creativity take?
I’ve always been keen on drawing, and was receptive to the feedback that my drawings received when I was 5-6 years old. I liked making images and I was a mostly visual child. My writing and academic progress elsewhere was perfectly fine but, in my leisure, I predominantly looked at picture books and enjoyed concentrating on my own pictures. This might sound bizarre, but finding paper wasn’t always easy and I would draw on the backs of envelopes and boxes.
Did you have any formal training?
I went to Edinburgh College of Art to study a degree in Visual Communication, which included Graphics, Film & TV, Animation, Photography and Illustration. I specialised in the latter two. I have mixed feelings about the experience. The institution was imperfect and the learning experience was full of flaws. I was also quite young, inexperienced, from an unsophisticated background and was learning a lot about city living. In retrospect, despite my appetite for new experiences, I was probably affected by culture shock. The good and the bad things were ultimately learning experiences and have been influential in my own teaching.
When did you decide that was how you wanted to make a living? How soon were you able to make this a reality?
Due to leaving art college with a bad taste in my mouth, I was motivated to make things happen on my own terms - I think I had something to prove. My first six months were spent working in a record shop re-finding some equilibrium after the intense conclusion to my studies. In January 1993, I started taking my folio around potential clients, I went part-time and gave myself 6 months to see if enough would happen to merit continuing. That was the extent of my business plan.
Do you mostly create what you choose or do you work to commission?
For almost 21 years, my work was always in response to commissions. I’ve been adept at interpreting and translating supplied material into imagery. More recently, though, I’ve worked on side projects where I‘m more central to what’s being developed and expressed. Nowadays, when teaching Communication Design, we’re more mindful of authorship - I think that can encourage young designers/illustrators to be less passive and more ambitious.
Where do you get your ideas from?
My work is about the act of translation. I love absorbing manuscripts, journalism, poetry, music (whatever form material comes in) and translating it effectively into imagery. The imagery need not be secondary to the text, nor merely replicating it. I feel imagery and text should complement one another in stimulating ways.
What’s your starting point when beginning a new piece of work?
I sketch and brainstorm. I’ll make written notes of what I understand of the material. I attempt to make associations between different elements and I will conduct visual research of particular items, themes, locations, imagery, whatever.
I will make many draft attempts at image ideas. Nothing is pointless. Making these steps is vital even though much of it might get discarded. Getting what’s in your head onto paper will help you organise the mental scramble and help you see the paths worth developing. That can be quite scrappy but it’s all about identifying and developing quality ideas and approaches rather than any appealing artwork style at that early stage.
The notion of inspiration striking is a myth. Startling connections or realizations can happen but they’ll only be delayed understandings of what you’ve already set up. It is about steady graft and persistent development of ideas and technique.
Do you have any rituals while working?
I’m reasonably disciplined at getting round to work. I do a regular working week and keep rather standard hours: Monday-Friday, 9-5. In my younger, free-er days I maybe did 11-7 with plenty of late nights. Conversely, I’m pretty bad at forcing myself to remain seated at the desk, even when it’s not helpful. I’m not very good at allowing myself walks or gallery trips when a mental break is probably what’s needed most. Having said that, I do distract myself a lot (I mean, do research!) on the internet. Rituals? I need a strong coffee and a banana around at about 11am every day.
What are your ideal working conditions, e.g. do you need complete silence or listen to music?
No other people (despite being a sociable person). Lauren Laverne on BBC 6Music is good. Silence when I need to concentrate, if that gets too isolating I sometimes play classical music. If I feel too lonely, then talk on Radio 4. One can absorb a lot of culture in these ways. Podcasts are helpful too.
Other environmental factors? I’m content with the study that I have in the house. I had a shared studio very early in my career that brought both good and bad experiences. All of human life thrives on interaction, but hell does sometimes feel like other people.
Can you remember the first piece of work you sold?
As a student, I got my first live project for a student paper. It was produced by David Shayler, who notoriously went on to become a secret-service-operative-turned-whistle-blower.
I don’t think of it that way. There’s no drama in developing avenues that don’t make it to the final outcome. The creative process shouldn’t comprise a single line of approach. I start many ideas, there will be branches, mergers, reflections and consultations.
How long will an average piece of work take to create?
Way too long, my cost-efficiency is akin to the minimum wage.
What are you working on at the moment?
A book cover for a self-publishing author plus some finishing work I did as Graphic Reporter. That’s an intriguing new direction that is opening up for me. I’m ready for new challenges and find that my skills from freelance practice and teaching are applicable in new and interesting settings. In fact, the understanding of illustration and design practice is changing and the necessary skills and mind-set continue to evolve amidst a media landscape that’s radically being affected by new technologies.
What professional hopes and ambitions do you have for the future?
I set myself the task of attempting to adapt and evolve to the changing circumstances I find myself in as an illustrator. It’s good that this challenge has come around, though, as one can’t do the same thing forever. Learning is fun. I’m enjoying finding out about how publishing is changing and seeing what creative and commercial possibilities might be developed from that. This has encouraged me to pursue side projects and the results could be quite rewarding. It’s all about changing models just now - and how (or whether) money can be made in affected industries. If I negotiate this correctly, enough people will, hopefully, continue to want my services in future years.
Thank you so much, Kim, for that insight into your creative process. Much of what you say resonates with me, especially in relation to the need to adapt and evolve, and creativity being a matter of hard work rather than flashes of inspiration.
You can see lots more of Kim’s work on his website: http://www.kimfolio.com/